August 2017
By Leah Guren

Image: © Albert Ziganshin/123rf.com

Leah Guren is the owner/operator of Cow TC. She has been active in the field of technical communication since 1980 as a writer, manager, Help author, and usability consultant. She now devotes her time to consulting and teaching courses and seminars in technical communication, primarily in Israel and Europe.


leah[at]cowtc.com
www.cowtc.com

Fluff – the eternal challenge

In technical communication, short and simple is always better. There is a wealth of data confirming the value of clear, direct writing. The famous Jakob Nielsen study from Sun Microsystems showed the advantage of cutting text; after he removed 40 percent of the original text on the website’s knowledge base, Nielsen discovered that users thought that the new version had more information.

What exactly is "fluff"?

When editors talk about fluff, they are referring to many different writing problems that are not actual mistakes in syntax or grammar. Rather, these are the bad habits that cause our writing to be bloated and hard to understand.  

There are two major problems with fluff:

  • For users, fluff makes the content harder to read and understand. It makes it harder to find and identify information. It increases the risk of user error.
  • For companies, fluff increases localization costs (a direct expense) and increases customer support costs (an indirect expense).

The many faces of fluff

There are many types of fluff:

  • Formal and complex vocabulary: Long, complex words make a text harder to understand. Why write "proficiencies" when you can write "skills"?
    Solution: pick the simplest words.
  • Long, passive voice sentences: Passive voice makes it harder to decode who is responsible for an action. Sentences over 12 words long slow down reading and make it harder to remember content.
    Solution: rewrite in active voice and shorten sentences.
  • Extra words: Empty phrases such as "owing to the fact that" instead of "because" add words without adding value.
    Solution: purge empty phrases.
  • Vague writing: Using ambiguous modifiers means that different people may interpret the same content in different ways. For example, what does it mean if you write "the installation is very quick"?
    Solution: if you cannot quantify something, remove the modifier.
  • Hidden strong verbs: Writing is always shorter and livelier when the strong verb is pulled forward. For example, why write "the meeting came to an end at 15:00" when you can write "the meeting ended at 15:00"?
    Solution: search for strong verbs hiding in the sentence and use them instead of "to be" verbs.
  • Unnecessary detail: Sometimes the problem is not the writing style but the content itself. You don't need to tell the user technical facts that don't relate to the current workflow. Also, you don't always need to show multiple methods for an action.
    Solution: always focus on what the user needs at that moment.
  • Unnecessary repetition: Poorly structured content leads to a lot of repetition, which means extra words on the page or screen. Solution: look for repeated text in tables that could appear just once in a heading, or online content that can be a single topic referenced by many topics.

Why does it happen?

If we know fluff is so bad, why do we still write this way? The root of the problem is in the way most Western countries teach writing and composition:

  • Students are told that passive voice is more proper or businesslike. As a result, many adults have been conditioned to think that active voice and simple words don’t sound right.
  • Students are given minimum length requirements for essays, rather than maximum lengths. As a result, students get used to adding fluff to make their essays longer.
  • At university, students write to impress their professors, not to express ideas clearly. Further, most universities still follow the outdated IMRAD structure (Introduction, Methods, Results, and Discussion) for scientific research papers. This structure was established in the mid-1800s and is now considered ineffective for the needs of modern researchers.
  • It is hard to be creative and terse at the same time.

Tips for managers

Trying to train your team? You may have to help them break many years of bad habits. Some of them may resent the edits; they may actually be proud of their flowery writing style and big vocabulary. After all, dozens of teachers have praised them over the years for doing exactly what you are now criticizing!

To break these habits, you must first educate your team about usability. They need to understand that the writing is for the user, not for the author. The more data you can present, the more likely you are to convince them.

Here are a few tips:

  • Don't criticize how they learned previously. Many people have fond memories of favorite teachers. They may resist change if they feel that you are criticizing their beloved teachers.
  • Remind them that different types of writing have different purposes, and therefore different rules.
  • Put more emphasis on audience analysis and needs analysis rather than writing. This helps writers to focus on user needs.
  • Get your writers to write quickly and naturally with no regard for fluff. Teach them to let the draft sit before going back and editing it aggressively. It is far easier to edit out fluff than to write fluff-free.
  • Use games and fun challenges to get writers to cut words and reduce fluff. By making it fun, you can reinforce the learning objective. The repeated practice can help change years of bad writing habits.

Fighting fluff is a lifetime commitment!

Over time, fluff starts creeping back into our content. Just as our weight slowly increases when we don't pay attention to our diet, our writing slowly starts to get fat! Put your writing on a diet once a year to keep it trim and useful.